Ukraine presidential election under threat in eastern region

District election committee members prepare their polling station for the voting in the city of Dobropillia, Donetsk region, Ukraine, 24 May 2014 one the eve of the Ukrainian presidential elections on 25 May 2014. Photo> EFE/EPA
Ukrainians vote Sunday in an early presidential election that could be a crucial step toward resolving the country\’s crisis, but separatists in the east are threatening to block the vote.
Sunday\’s vote comes with tensions running high after a bloody upsurge in fighting, with two Western photographers injured while covering the disturbances in the country\’s separatist east.
Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk issued an appeal for people to turn out to "defend Ukraine", which has been in deep crisis since street protests forced out the Kremlin-backed regime in February.
"This will be the expression of the will of Ukrainians from the west, east, north and south," he said.
But the rebels warned they would prevent voting in their strongholds in the industrial heartland on the Russian border.
"If necessary we will revert to the use of force," said Denis Pushilin, a leader of the self-declared Donetsk People\’s Republic.
State election officials also admitted that they will only be able to open two of the 12 commissions responsible for tabulating ballots in the neighbouring separatist province of Lugansk.
Russian president Vladimir Putin says he will respect the choice of the Ukrainian people in Sunday\’s presidential vote but says ousted ex-leader Viktor Yanukovych technically remains in power.
Speaking at an investment forum in St Petersburg on Friday, Putin said Russia would "respect the choice of the Ukrainian people" and would work with the new leadership.
He said he was upbeat on the prospects for resolving the crisis in Ukraine and that doing so would help improve relations with the United States.
"I\’m an optimist. I am not losing faith that the situation in Ukraine will at some point become normal and we will find the inner strength to normalise relations (with the United States)," the Reuters news agency reported.
He also said that Russia did not want to isolate itself from the rest of the world and that it wanted to work with the United States on many projects.
"We are not planning any self-isolation," Putin said. "We hope that common sense … will prompt our European and US partners to work with Russia,"
Yet earlier, Putin had blamed the West for both encouraging a "coup" in Ukraine when the nation\’s pro-Russian president was chased from power and for plunging the country into what he described as "chaos and a full-scale civil war."
In a live televised address from Kiev, acting Ukrainian President Oleksandr Turchynov, who is not running in Sunday\’s presidential vote amid a surge a attacks by pro-Russian separatists in the country\’s east, emphasised the importance of choosing a new leader.
"Today, we are building a new European country the foundation of which was laid by millions of Ukrainians who proved that they are capable of defending their own choice and their country," Turchynov said, the AP news agency reported.
Turchynov said on Thursday that 14 troops had been killed in two overnight attacks by rebel forces in the separatist east of the country.
Security sources said on Thursday that the main clash took place about 20km south of the industrial hub of Donetsk, which is now in the hands of separatists who say they will disrupt the election.
Ukrainian forces also fought separatists in the neighbouring Luhansk region but there was no word about any casualties there, the Reuters news agency reported.
The defence ministry confirmed that several people died in a firefight near Donetsk, but gave no precise death toll. It added that the clash occurred when gunmen opened fire on an army checkpoint near the town of Volnovakha.
Separately, Ukrainian border guards said they rebuffed an attempt by dozens of separatists, armed with grenade launchers and rifles, to enter the Luhansk region overnight from Russia. Several guards were hurt in the fighting.
Separatists on Thursday also seized four Ukrainian coal mines in the country\’s east, according to the Ministry of Energy.
"The terrorists, threatening [workers] with guns, are demanding explosives" in the eastern Lugansk region near the Russian border, the ministry said in a statement, adding that the mines belong to the Lysychanskugol company.
Ukrainian security forces and the pro-Moscow separatists have clashed repeatedly in recent weeks in eastern Ukraine, where the breakdown of security has rattled the pro-Western interim government in Kiev.
Kiev has acknowledged that Sunday\’s election cannot be held in parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions and has accused Moscow of deliberately seeking to undermine Ukrainian democracy, a charge echoed by the United States and European Union.
Russia denies the legitimacy of the current Kiev government, which took over after mass street protests toppled Moscow-backed president Viktor Yanukovich in February. He fled to Russia and in March Russia seized Ukraine\’s Black Sea peninsula of Crimea.
Source: Agencies
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